Wow, what a vicious post I wrote yesterday! There really isn’t much wider perspective when you’re taking things out of your bag at K-Mart because your debit card has maxed out. Ironically, this makes it easier to understand those Tea Party folks I was writing against yesterday. Many of them are fairly newly middle class, and fairly barely middle class at that. Owning art, driving a comfortable, well-appointed car, cancer surgery for the dog — these were probably dreams for which they and their families worked hard at miserable jobs. Yes, it makes me angry that they don’t realize it was unions which made many of these jobs bearable and profitable — but in turn, it makes me angry that non-union folks didn’t have the same rewards for equally hard and dangerous work.
But back to Universalist history. My alternative to rebuilding the unions is European style democratic socialism. It is not a theoretical concept to me — by grandmother, whose parents immigrated from Germany, held that conviction (tightly concealed) as she lived out her working life in North Carolina. But the Europeans won their universalized work safety, wages and leisure at bloody and bitter barricades. 1848 had revolts in many major European cities, put down by violent repressions. They had been building for years, and looked back, in part, to the even bloodier French Revolution, in which much of the aristocracy was beheaded. The idea of liberating property from the few to the masses has never been pretty. But people fight like hell, both to keep what they have, or to get what they need.
Yesterday I wrote of Henry VIIIth and the violent, and therefore mis-named, “dissolution of the monasteries.” I remember learning about this in junior high (private reading even then) and trying to figure out what made his changes a Reformation. At that time, I was operating under the benign definition of Reformation — that it expanded access to salvation for everyone. And Henry would have said he was doing that, because the hierarchical holiness of monasteries and cathedrals certainly did imply lesser corners of heaven for the rest of us. Only recently have I — and many Protestant historians and theologians — come to recognize the popular support Roman Catholicism enjoyed and deserved from those structures.
Anyone who has studied Oliver Cromwell — or who thought “Off with their heads!” was an overly-grim response to monarchy — will note that the Puritan revolution was universalism at its worst. Totalitarianism, even for the most “liberal” outcomes, is still repression. European democratic socialism is a hard-won compromise. France and Germany have many folks who are richer and poorer, and I’m sure not all their taxation is totally fair and transparent. But it’s a lot better than ours, and after two world wars, as well as the Holocaust, they appreciate the need for citizens to monitor and oversee government functions. But they also know seem to know what governments do for them. Even the British royal family seems to know that bombs fall on the rich and the poor alike, and limousines drive on the same roads as junkers.
When Charles Darwin described evolution, he included a stage called “the survival of the fittest.” My 9th grade biology teacher minced no words: this was the moment when nasty, ugly, painful fights to the death establish long term winners and losers.
But the real survivors are not so much those who win the single fight as those who adapt to the changing habitat which is their real enemy. Here is where I look to the folks fighting for their unions to learn from the voyage of the Beagle. Yes, there are a few rich corporations, but most of them, ultimately, are as vulnerable as you are to the misdeeds and greed of their managers and directors. It’s time for non-management stockholders and workers to unite against management-based stockholders and directors to set up a different vision for this country.
Ironically, for us Unitarians and Universalists, this means rediscovering some uncomfortable parts of our own past. Most of us are willing to praise the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction era — a strongly Unitarian contingent — as well we should. But we need to remember how many of them, and their social and religious circles, were local business people. Here in Burlington, they were grocers, clothing sellers, shoe-makers, with regional rather than national and international trading networks.
The twentieth century in this country was about unpacking the racial and ethnic stereotypes by which we were formerly unable to advance all parts of our population. This century, so far, it looks like we are going to have to do the same thing for our political and economic divisions.